Overcoming pandemic and censorship, reporters use messaging app for dialogue with their audiences | Reclaiming social media | DW | 10.05.2023
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Reclaiming Social Media

Overcoming pandemic and censorship, reporters use messaging app for dialogue with their audiences

How an online newspaper leveraged WhatsApp to create spaces for meaningful dialogue about COVID-19 and politics

This article is part of DW Akademie’s Reclaiming Social Media project, which aims to highlight how media outlets and journalists in the Global South develop innovative initiatives to enhance online discussions of public interest. Following the research phase, the project’s researchers and journalists discussed recommendations for various stakeholders on how to improve constructive public dialogue on social media. To gain inspiration from additional case studies and participate in the discussions, explore the Reclaiming Social Media dossier. 

In 2016, as Venezuelan journalist César Batiz was attending a conference in Miami and watching his Brazilian counterparts explain how they used the WhatsApp messaging platform to crowdsource story ideas from their readers, he had a Eureka moment. El Pitazo, the online independent non-profit media outlet he founded two years earlier, could use WhatsApp for the same and much more.  

Founded in Caracas in 2014 to provide trustworthy information to low-income audiences, El Pitazo – whose Spanish name translates to whistle, as in whistleblower – has to operate in a highly restrictive environment. Its reporters have been denied access to public events, while its website has been the target of cyber-attacks, and also repeatedly blocked by the main, state-owned company internet provider. What’s more, the government hasaccused El Pitazo and other independent media of being foreign-funded “journalism mercenaries” seeking to bring down the government.

By adapting the Brazilian WhatsApp model, El Pitazo could reach its audience directly and create a space for journalists and readers to interact more freely. Not only is WhatsApp very popular in Venezuela, its closed messenger groups cannot be located, censored, or blocked by the authorities.

"Censorship affects us in many ways," explained Rena Camacho, an El Pitazo journalist: it hinders journalists from expressing themselves freely and obstructs them from reaching and informing their readers, who are already vulnerable to misinformation pushed by the state.

From audio notes and workshops to crowdsourcing news

Against this backdrop, the first logical step for Batiz and his team was to use WhatsApp to deliver a short, daily audio report to their readers, called noteaudios. Launched in 2017, these four-minute summaries of the day’s main news stories can be easily shared on social media. The noteaudios also served El Pitazo’s newsroom guidelines to use “technology and all possible alternative means to reach the poorest social groups, which is our target audience.”

Venezuela | El Pitazo | I4D Dialog

EL Pitazo employee putting up a poster as part of their offline strategy

Inspired by similar approaches in the region, Batiz quickly understood that social media could be used for much more than a one-way conversation: it could also help El Pitazo reach their other important goal, to produce journalism grounded in citizens' and communities' needs. But there was just one caveat, as Batiz told DW Akademie:

"We knew we didn't have the expertise or capacity to dedicate [so many journalists] to attend to [our WhatsApp channel], so we decided to invert the process." This meant starting with their communities, giving their readers the necessary skills and tools not only to help El Pitazo reach wider audiences, but also to become the journalists’ allies, ears, and eyes on the ground all around the country.

Shortly after Batiz returned from the Miami conference in October 2016, El Pitazo launched the InfoCiudadanos project – ciudadanos means citizens in Spanishan in-person workshop in a low-income neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela's capital. This soon turned into a series of around 120 workshops all around the country, where local readers and residents invited El Pitazo journalists to help train over 1,300 people to use trusted and verified sources of information, and to sharpen their social media skills.

Workshop participants – the infociudadanos, or informed citizens – then became an integral and active part of El Pitazo’s news gathering process, submitting story ideas and pitches, and providing vivid reports about life in their communities. In other words: supplying material that journalists could transform into news content. For instance, according to Batiz, infociudadano alerted El Pitazo journalists to a cut in gas supply that lasted over five days, affecting dozens of families in a district near Caracas.

These workshops in 2019 led to the launch of a similar initiative, with the same goal: to establish closer contact with the audience. In this new project, readers could request the participation of experts on topics such as health and the climate crisis. Much like the workshops, readers and infociudadanos could request that experts visit them in their communities and talk about topics important to them. Since the project went live, the talks have covered gender issues, politics, health, and environmental topics.  

For Rena Camacho, the biggest impact of these two projects was that they enabled El Pitazo’s journalists to build and maintain a close connection with the communities they serve, utilizing a messaging platform for cooperation, training, and education catered to the audience’s needs.

Venezuela | El Pitazo | I4D Dialog

The EL Pitazo team - a group of skilled journalists and staff members committed to delivering accurate and up-to-date news coverage from Venezuela


The Covid pandemic: Turning a crisis into an opportunity

So when the Covid pandemic hit the country in early 2020, it was clear to Batiz and his team how they could organically continue their work online. Drawing on the experience of these two initiatives, deeply rooted in Venezuela’s grassroots culture, they decided to use a messenger app to help generate news stories. While many other media outlets were experimenting with formats like Zoom and livestreams for the first time, El Pitazo knew what worked for them. "We had a precedent in using WhatsApp as a tool to distribute content," said Batiz. "This was kind of the basis that allowed us to swiftly set up the InfoCiudadanos and the Café con El Pitazo on WhatsApp.”

The very first Café con El Pitazo took place one month after the pandemic was declared in Venezuela: a forochat - from the Spanish term for forum and the English word chat - with a renowned professor on the subject of online education. This first attempt was a hit: over 500 people participated in the forochat in two WhatsApp groups (the app places a cap of 256 users per group).

Since their online transition, El Pitazo has held 240 forochats on topics ranging from environmental issues to LGBTQ+ rights. In August 2022 for example, a forochat with Joaquín Benitez, a sustainable development expert, addressed the topic of building resorts and tourism infrastructure on Isla Tortuga, an island in the Venezuelan Caribbean.

According to Camacho, the forochat format works particularly well for the local context. "Here we have frequent power outages, which leaves us without an internet connection. One of the advantages of this format is that even if you are not online, you can download the messages afterward and see them," says Camacho.

The forochats require constant integration of feedback and flexibility. This “open-minded” stance has allowed El Pitazo to experiment with different time slots, better adapted to their audience’s needs.

El Pitazo has established rules and norms (see list below) that all participants must adhere to during the forochats to maintain a constructive and open environment. These rules are shared 30 minutes before each event, and failure to follow them results in removal and a ban from future participation. Rena and her team act as moderators to enforce the rules, and while there have been a few instances of disruption, the experience has been mostly positive with civil discourse even on controversial topics. Rena noted that censorship has not been an issue, but some users had spammed the group with state propaganda and government-related videos. In such cases, users are given a warning before being removed if they fail to follow the rules.

Referring to the COVID-19 pandemic, Camacho said that "when faced with a big crisis, we become more creative. The reality is that the forochats were so successful, it motivated us to keep this dialogue open with communities," says Camacho.

In 2023, El Pitazo plans to roll out a hybrid format, keeping the forochats online as well as returning to their target communities to hold in-person workshops and talks.

Norms and rules of the forochats:

  • ✍🏻 Let's try to be brief and concrete so that everyone can participate.
  • 🙋🏻 Identify yourself with your name, sector, or region of the country at the time of asking a question, so that it is left to the invitee to respond.
  • Please do not answer questions from other participants.
  • 😵 Avoid using stickers and emojis.
  • ⛓️ Do not send chains, photos, or videos to the chat.
  • 🗣️ We maintain respectful language.

Insights & lessons learned:

  • Social media can be employed to circumvent government censorship and deliver journalistic content
  • Local communities can be central to the journalistic process: as sources of information, co-producers, and distributors of content
  • Established continuous spaces of cooperation, training, and education with audiences catering to their own needs 
  • Using social media platforms – in this case WhatsApp – to host the products that your audience already know is a good approach to ensure usage by target communities

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